Elmore Leonard

Jackie Brown

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1997

Miramax Films

Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Executive Produced by Elmore Leonard, Bob Weinstein & Harvey Weinstein

Produced by Lawrence Bender

Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino based on the novel “Rum Punch” by Elmore Leonard

My love affair with Pamela Michelle Byrd Grier began way back in 1974 when I saw “Foxy Brown” Never before in the movies or in real life had I seen a woman of such astonishing beauty combined with her effortless confidence and assertiveness. She seemed to possess an energy that came right off the screen at me. I was hypnotized and unable to take my eyes off of her. As I got older and got my hormones under control I began to realize that she actually was a much better actor than she got credit for. And believe me, I’ve studied Pam Grier as I’ve studied few actresses. I have seen every one of her movies since “Foxy Brown” in the theater and those I didn’t I quickly bought on VHS as soon as they were available and then wore out the tapes watching them over and over again. She is truly a legendary talent and one that I’m glad to see has been appreciated in her lifetime. It took quite a while but she has properly been heralded for the great actress she is and no one is more delighted than I am to see her success.

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JACKIE BROWN is just one of the reasons why I give Quentin Tarantino respect. There are black directors highly critical of his depiction of African-Americans in his movies and his use of the word ‘nigger’ which they think is thrown around way too freely by both black and white actors in his movies. Well, I didn’t see any black directors lining up to create movies specifically to give Pam Grier a role worthy of her talent and as for the highly controversial use of the word ‘nigger.’ Okay, it’s like this…in JACKIE BROWN we’re dealing with a character played by Samuel L. Jackson who uses the word just about every chance he gets. Because that is the character. You do a crime movie about a certain breed of criminal and he’s not going to talk like a MIT graduate. I respect a writer/director who respects his characters and is true to their nature and depicts them without the sugar coating or the bullshit of political correctness. Because I’m a big boy and I can take it. The use of the word in the context of the story being told and the character who uses it is doesn’t bother me at all. But if it bothers you then by all means, stay away from JACKIE BROWN. But that would be a shame because then you’d be depriving yourself of some terrific work by an all-star cast of actors in a truly great crime thriller.

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Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) is a flight attendant working for a fourth rate Mexican airline. She supplements her income by smuggling money from Mexico to the United States for Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) a gun runner working on that one big score which will enable him to retire and spend the rest of his life spending.

Jackie is picked up by ATF agent Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton) and L.A.P.D. detective Mark Dargus (Michael Bowen) who have had Ordell on their radar from some time. Jackie was ratted out by Beaumont Livingston (Chris Tucker) another one of Ordell’s customers who had been arrested earlier and gave up the information before he could be released by bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster)

Evading an effort by Ordell to kill her, Jackie proposes a plan to Ordell to safely bring in half a million dollars of his money. The plan is going to need the assistance of Ordell’s stoner girlfriend (Bridget Fonda) and Ordell’s former cellmate, Louis Gara (Robert DeNiro) who’s just gotten out of jail. Part of the plan involves letting Nicolette and Dargus think that Jackie is double-crossing Ordell, allowing them to use her to arraign a sting. But Jackie has a plan all of her own to double-cross everybody and take the half million for herself. The only catch is that she’s going to need Max’s help to pull it off. Jackie’s pretty sure that Max is half in love with her but will that half help her? And while Max himself is impressed with Jackie’s brains and resourcefulness, he’s not entirely sure himself how far he can trust her. After all, she may have a plan for dealing with him as well.

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The main thing I love about JACKIE BROWN is that everybody in the movie is smart. Well, everybody except for poor Louis. But it’s fun to watch Robert DeNiro play a dimwit because you have to be really smart to play really dumb and Louis is really dumb. So dumb that the only solution he can come up with to shut up a woman who won’t stop talking is to shoot her. But everybody else is really smart and for me that adds to the suspense of the story. If everybody is smart then everybody has an equal chance of figuring out what Jackie is up to and that means she’s got to work twice as hard to be twice as smart if she wants to come out of this alive and with the money.

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There are so many good scenes in this movie there’s no way to list them all but some of my favorites: when Max sees Jackie for the first time and we hear “Natural High” on the soundtrack and it encapsulates perfectly how Max is feeling at that moment. We know the moment he falls in love with her when later on Max is simply watching her smoke a cigarette, wearing a bathrobe and listening to The Delfonics sing “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time?” that may just be the sexiest moment in the entire movie. The scene where Ordell coaxes Beaumont into being a willing participant in his own murder with the promise of chicken and waffles. Any and every scene between DeNiro and Fonda as they’re all hilarious.

The relationship between Jackie and Max is one that reminds us that Tarantino makes movies for adults and not for demographics. It’s a mature relationship that is defined as much as what is not said as by what is said. As always, Tarantino’s dialog is on point and compelling to listen to. The characters in any Tarantino movie are always worth listening to and JACKIE BROWN is no exception. Robert Forster is solid in his co-starring role and Michael Keaton is always worth watching and he plays Ray Nicolette in another movie based on a Elmore Leonard novel; “Out of Sight”

So should you see JACKIE BROWN? Chances are that if you’re reading this, you already have. If you haven’t seen it by now then chances are you have no interest in seeing it. Fair enough. But for those of us who have been life-long fans of The Filmic Goddess of War, JACKIE BROWN is the crown jewel of Pam Grier’s long and remarkable career and one of the best examples of Quentin Tarantino’s directorial and storytelling talent.

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Rated R

154 minutes

Valdez Is Coming

1971

MGM/United Artists

Produced by Ira Steiner

Directed by Edwin Sherin

Screenplay by Roland Kibbee and David Rayfiel

Based on the novel by Elmore Leonard

When you hear the name Elmore Leonard you might think of the current hit television show “Justified” which is based on a character he created for a couple of novels.   Some of you will know him from “Get Shorty” and “Be Cool” as he wrote the novels those highly popular movies were based on.  But way before then Elmore Leonard really bounced into popularity during the 70’s and 80’s with a bunch of very successful crime novels.  His novel “Rum Punch” was filmed as one of my favorite movies of all time: “Jackie Brown” starring Pam Grier and directed by Quentin Tarantino.  But even more way before then Elmore Leonard got his start back in the 1950’s writing western novels.  Plenty of Mr. Leonard’s westerns have been adapted into some classic movies: “Joe Kidd”“3:10  To Yuma””Hombre””Last Stand At Saber River” But my favorite Elmore Leonard western film stars one of my all time favorite actors: Burt Lancaster in VALDEZ IS COMING.

Bob Valdez (Burt Lancaster) is a Mexican-American sheriff who works the Mexican half of a small town on the Texas/Mexico border.  The Anglo sheriff is away on other business and so Valdez is called in to resolve a dangerous situation.  A black man living with a Mexican woman has been accused of murder by the powerful gunrunner/rancher Frank Tanner (Jon Cypher).  Valdez hopes to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the standoff.  The shack the suspect is holed up in is surrounded by the bigoted white posse who are using the shack for target practice  when Valdez arrives to do his job.  Due to a series of shockingly idiotic misunderstandings Valdez is forced to kill the black man, who turns out to be innocent of the crime.

Wracked by guilt, Valdez seeks to do right by the dead man’s Mexican woman and thinks that it isn’t too much that she be given $100 so that she can move back to the Indian reservation and start a new life.  Valdez first goes to the town’s leading citizens who are of the opinion that since the whole thing was Tanner’s fault; he should put up the money.  But they’re willing to make a deal: if Valdez can get $100 from Tanner, they’ll match it with another $100.  Valdez’s attempts to get the money from Tanner results in him being laughed at, beaten like a dog and humiliated in a truly brutal fashion: he’s tied to a rude wooden cross which he has to carry on his back through the desert.   Valdez gets free and once he gets back home pulls out the dusty footlocker under his bed which holds his most precious possessions.  The uniform he proudly wore as a member of the United States Army when he was renowned as the most dangerous hunter/killer of Apache warriors.  His Sharps buffalo rifle with which he can shoot a man in the eye at a 1000 yards. And his fearsomely large Buntline revolvers.  His old battle skills reawakened, Valdez begins a guerrilla war with Tanner in which he starts killing off Tanner’s hired guns one by one, leaving them alive long enough for them to return to their boss and deliver a chilling message: “Valdez Is Coming”

What makes VALDEZ IS COMING such an interesting western is the racial bigotry theme behind the story.  Blacks and Mexicans are the victims here and Valdez is motivated not so much by personal revenge as you might think.  Although being tied to a cross and being forced to walk through the desert would be more than enough to piss me off, lemme tell you. But Valdez’s motivations are deeper than revenge.  His personal code of justice is outraged.  And he has an overwhelming desire to see that to see men act like men, own up to their mistake, do the right thing and acknowledge the innocent black man and the Mexican woman as human beings.  Or at least as much as can be expected in the Old West where life was cheap and the life of minorities was even cheaper.  What makes it even more interesting is that the posse Tanner puts together to hunt Valdez is primarily made up of Mexicans. Tanner’s own right hand man, El Segundo (Barton Heyman) is a Mexican and a pretty damn dangerous man in his own right who understands what Valdez is trying to do and tries to make his boss understand as well to no avail.

The performances in this are really good. Burt Lancaster plays Valdez with a dangerous understatement that fits the character well.  He goes through the first half of the movie as a shambling, quietly spoken man who has put his wild life and lethal skills behind him and is just trying to do a difficult job the best way he can.  But when they rouse this sleeping giant, oh baby, does he get payback in a big way.  Richard Jordan has a good role as a hired gun who oddly enough is conflicted about the way he feels about Valdez and has to put his feelings about Valdez as a Mexican and as a man in a whole new perspective as the hunt for Valdez becomes increasingly more deadly.  Susan Clark is really good in this movie.  Most of you reading this will probably remember her from the TV show “Webster” and I was surprised at how effective she is as Tanner’s woman.  There’s an interesting subplot with her character as it’s taken as a given by the townspeople that Tanner killed her husband so that he could shack up with her.  Valdez takes her hostage to try and bargain with her life for the $100 and through their time together the truth about that situation is resolved in a surprising way I really didn’t see coming.  Frank Silvera plays Valdez’s best friend and they have a really good scene that says everything that needs to be said about how whites view Mexicans that resonated for me given the current climate in the Unites States about Mexican immigrants and makes you think that maybe this country really hasn’t come so far in our racial views as we like to think.

So should you see VALDEZ IS COMING?  I think you’d enjoy it a whole lot if you’re a western fan like I am.  While it’s not as action packed or as purely entertaining as some of the other westerns Burt Lancaster has made such as “The Scalphunters” “Vera Cruz” or “The Professionals” it is a satisfying horse opera in terms of performances and story.  And, yes, it’s not PC to have an Irishman playing a Mexican but that’s how things were done back then so if you want to see the movie, make your peace with that.   There’s a whole lot more to VALDEZ IS COMING than the good guy simply blowing away the bad guys which is underlined by the ending which is one of the most unusual of any western I know but it so absolutely right that I can’t imagine any other way the movie can have ended.  If your cable/satellite provider carries Turner Classic Movies you can wait for VALDEZ IS COMING to show up there as it seems to be a favorite there of somebody in Programming as they usually run it on a Saturday afternoon and if you’re lucky you’ll find it paired with “The War Wagon” or “The Magnificent Seven”.  But if you don’t want to wait, by all means put it on your Netflix queue.  If you’re looking for a solid western with good performances, fine action sequences and a story that contains a little bit more thought to social issues than you might expect from the genre, VALDEZ IS COMING is my recommendation.

Rated PG-13

90 minutes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mr. Majestyk

1974

MGM/United Artists

Produced by Walter Mirisch

Directed by Richard Fleischer

Written by Elmore Leonard

I don’t think anybody will be surprised when I say that Charles Bronson is one of my favorite actors of the group that I call “Old Time Tough”.  I’m talking about guys like Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Ernest Borgnine, Jim Brown, James Coburn, Steve McQueen, Robert Mitchum, Woody Strode, William Holden, Clint Eastwood, Kirk Douglas, Sean Connery…you know what I’m talking about.  These are guys tough enough to walk through Hell with sticks of TNT in their hip pockets yet cool enough that the dynamite wouldn’t dare blow up on them.  Not like the current crop of pretty boy actors.  I’m sorry, but no matter how you try, you can’t convince me that half of today’s male movie actors can beat up on anybody over the age of nine, let alone the dozens of guys they take on in a movie.

Now Charles Bronson…here’s a guy who actually looks like he can pound the ever-lovin’ piss outta you in a New York minute.  He’s got a face that’s been lived in.  It shows age and experience.  He’s got a voice that sounds like he’s been gargling with whiskey and cigarette butts since puberty.  Charles Bronson radiates quiet menace.  He very rarely raises his voice on screen.  If he’s going to kick your sorry ass he just goes ahead and does it.  Chances are you’ve done something to deserve it.  And in MR. MAJESTYK the bad guys certainly do deserve it.  After all, Bronson goes through most of the movie just trying to mind his business.  But circumstances have other plans for him.

Vince Majestyk (Charles Bronson) is a Colorado watermelon farmer.  After struggling along for a few years he stands to make a massive profit from this year’s crop of melons.  He’s got 160 acres of melons that need picking and by a lucky chance meets with the feisty migrant worker Nancy Chavez (Linda Cristal) who isn’t related to that other Chavez but she has been involved in unionizing migrant workers.

Majestyk isn’t interested in her politics but if she can get a crew to pick his melons he’ll gladly pay them the fair wages she asks for.  However, Majestyk has to run off the small time strong-arm man Bobby Kopas (Paul Koslo) who is trying to force Majestyk to hire his crew of melon pickers that are nothing more than a bunch of Skid Row drunks.  The drunks don’t know how to pick melons and Majestyk knows they’ll ruin one melon for every three they pick.  So what does Majestyk do?  Well, since this is a Charles Bronson movie, he kicks Bobby’s ass and sends his crew packing.  You expected something different, maybe?

Bobby swears out an assault warrant against Majestyk who is promptly jailed by the sardonic Lt. McAllen (Frank Maxwell) who is immune to Majestyk’s pleas that he be allowed two or three days to get his melon crop in.  While in jail, Majestyk gets on the bad side of Mafia hit man Frank Renda (Al Lettieri) Renda’s boys try to break Renda out of jail during a wild shootout that goes horribly wrong and Majestyk sees a chance.  He makes off with Renda and tries to negotiate with Lt. McAllen: drop the charges against me and let me go back to picking melons and I’ll give you Renda.  However, with the help of his girlfriend Wiley (Lee Purcell) Renda escapes and vows vengeance against Majestyk.  After hooking up with Bobby Kopas, Renda scares off Majestyk’s migrant workers, breaks the legs of Majestyk’s best friend Larry (Alejandro Rey) and worst of all, machine guns Majestyk’s melon crop.

Well, he shouldn’t have done that.

You see, Majestyk is a decorated Vietnam veteran who earned a Silver Star and who was also one of the best U.S. Army Ranger instructors and he certainly hasn’t forgotten any of his skills.  He just hasn’t had a chance to use them for a while…

I’m a big fan of 70’s action movies like MR. MAJESTYK because while they lack the pyrotechnical whiz bang of action movies nowadays they have a gritty, down-to-earth look that gives such a realistic feel to the story that you really get sucked into what the story and characters are about and you’re not just waiting for the next big action sequence.  There’s really not anything in MR. MAJESTYK that is outside the realm of possibility.  I attribute that to the terrific screenplay by Elmore Leonard, who may just be the finest crime writer of the late 20th Century.  The dialog is wonderful to listen to but if you know anything about Elmore Leonard that shouldn’t be a surprise.  Leonard writes dialog where people talk to each other and not at each other.

The performances are great.  Charles Bronson is quietly capable as the enigmatic Vince Majestyk.  He’s just trying to get his melon crop in but all this other stuff keeps getting in the way.  Early on in the movie when he has a run in with some thugs and effortlessly takes away a shotgun from one of them, he says: “You’re in the wrong business” we believe him.  We also believe that Frank Renda doesn’t stand a chance against this man who he calls ‘The Melon Picker’ once we see what Majestyk is capable of when he finally gets sufficiently pissed off.  Al Lettieri obviously has a marvelous time playing Frank Renda.  His name might not be familiar to you but back in the 70’s if there was a crime/Mafia movie then Al Lettieri was in it.  His most famous roles were in the Sam Peckinpah version of “The Getaway” and he played Sollozzo, the only guy with the cojones to order a hit on Don Vito Corleone in “The Godfather” He was a guy who actually hung around and partied with Real Life criminals and mob guys.  It was that experience that he brought to the screen in the many roles he played, usually as a mob guy.

Linda Cristal is very good here as Nancy Chavez who eventually becomes Majestyk’s girlfriend.  They had a scene in a bar that is so refreshingly honest about how people actually decide to go to bed that I felt like cheering.  Sometimes it’s not all heart-shaped boxes of flowers and serenades under the balcony.  Sometimes people have a couple of drinks in a bar and say: “Hey, wouldn’t it be a good idea if we…”  And I can’t close out this review without mentioning Mr. Majestyk’s yellow Ford pickup truck that does such remarkable stunts in the final chase scene that it should be a member of The Stuntmen’s Association of Motion Pictures.

So should you see MR. MAJESTYK?  Totally.  If you’re a fan of Charles Bronson, of Elmore Leonard, of tight well-plotted, well-written crime thrillers then this is a movie that you’re going to love.  And in terms of acting, you won’t be disappointed.  MR. MAJESTYK is one of Charles Bronson’s best movies and one well worth seeing.  If you have Turner Classic Movies you can wait for it to show up there.  But if you’re subscribed to Netflix, put it on your list next time you’re looking for a satisfying action flick.  You’ll like it.  Trust me.

103 minutes

Rated: PG